On… Gotham S2E7 (the good one)

I’ve been a little critical of Gotham, especially this season, but episode 7 (Mommy’s Little Monster) stood out for me as being the best so far. Certainly the best this year and close to being the best in the series. Admittedly, the competition for that title isn’t exactly stellar, but still…

Needless to say, spoilers for this episode of Gotham and season two up to this point follow.

Cory Michael Smith as Ed Nygma, easily one of the best things about Gotham.
Cory Michael Smith as Ed Nygma, easily one of the best things about Gotham.

It probably helps that the first section of the episode centres on the two best characters in the show, the Penguin and the proto-Riddler Ed Nygma. Following on from the previous episode’s brilliant scene in which Ed semi-inadvertently strangles his girlfriend, the lovely-but-annoying Kris Kringle, after he confesses to murdering her former abusive boyfriend, there’s a wonderful sequence in which Ed is confronted by his more sinister split personality. It seems that Bad Ed has been out hiding Miss Kringle’s body whilst Good(ish) Ed has been ‘asleep’, and he has left some clues – signposted initially with the Riddler-brand question mark – for his other half to follow. In some ways this should come across as utterly ridiculous, but Cory Michael Smith does a brilliant job in making this believable. Smith is obviously relishing playing a more thoroughly villainous Nygma, and every scene with him in this episode is a treat. By the episode’s end it seems that ‘Bad Ed’ might have taken control, so it’ll be interesting to see where this goes from here.

All of that is a bit of a side-story in the episode, though, which mainly centres around Penguin and his increasingly poor mental state following the kidnapping of his mother. Galavan thinks he has the Penguin at his knees when Butch – now freed from his mind control thanks to Galavan’s sister and a whip – double-crosses his former master and lures him to the warehouse where Penguin’s mother is being held captive. Gotham hasn’t added a great deal of interest thus far to the Batman mythology, but the relationship between Penguin and his mother has been one of the standout pieces. It’s testament to actor Robin Taylor’s performance as Penguin that, even though he’s a terrible person, you really feel his pain at the utterly abrupt murder of his mother. It’s a shame that veteran comic actor Carol Kane’s performance had to come to an end (assuming there are no flashback or dream sequences), but it marks a very obvious turning point in the Penguin’s story arc.

Through a series of Machiavellian and, honestly, downright crazy machinations, Galavan manages to get himself elected major of Gotham (a polling result which was hardly in question given that all the other candidates were the wrong side of dead). His victory party is cut short by an attack by Penguin and an assortment of Penguin imitators. The sight of them waddling towards Galavan’s manor is a great scene.  A stand-off between Penguin, Gordon, Galavan and Bullock provides a fitting end to the episode, although the tension is reduced a bit since it’s fairly obvious the rules of episodic television dictate that no-one is going to die just yet. At least Gordon manages to come to the realisation that Galavan isn’t as much a servant of the light as he has made out, something that really should have been blindingly obvious from the start, but at least he’s worked it out before too long.

Yes, there are some typically rubbish bits in the episode. The scene where Gordon and Bullock trade bullets with Zsasz and anonymous goons seems utterly pointless and, frankly, ridiculous. Given that hundreds of rounds of ammunition were spent it seems ludicrous that nobody actually got hit, and everybody just walks away. The embryonic plot line featuring Bruce Wayne and Galavan’s niece (who may as well just have the word ‘Bitch’ tattooed on her forehead, it’s that obvious) is dull. Worse, it portrays Bruce as utterly naive. I realise he’s still young and isn’t Batman yet, but it just strikes the wrong chord with me that a boy who is supposed to be so haunted by the death of his parents would be taken in quite so easily. Maybe there’s a twist coming with this somewhere down the line, though. One can but hope.

Still, after a few weeks where I’ve been continually asking myself why I bother to watch it, Gotham seems at last to have taken a turn for the interesting. Hopefully the following episodes can keep up the momentum.

On… Dragon Age Inquisition DLC

Thanks to the recent EA sale on the PlayStation Store, I’ve just about got around to playing through the major bits of DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’ve been a big fan of Bioware’s stuff ever since the original Baldur’s Gate, and really enjoyed Inquisition. Okay, it suffered from too much filler and a annoying lack of codas to most of the sub-quests (I lost count of the number of times I picked up a seemingly random item only to find that I’d completed a quest I didn’t even know I was doing), but it seemed a great return to form after the somewhat weak Dragon Age II.

In terms of the DLC, aside from all the various equipment packs that cost about £2.50 and give you weapons with +10 damage versus horse armour or whatever, there are three major expansion packs: Jaws of Hakkon, Descent and Trespasser. In the traditional form, I shall take a brief look at each of them in order. Obviously, there are some spoilers here for the main game and all of the DLC, so avert your eyes if you don’t want to read them.

Some professor bloke in Jaws of Hakkon.
Some professor bloke in Jaws of Hakkon.

Of all the three, Jaws of Hakkon feels the most like content that was cut from the main game. It offers a new area – the Frostback Basin – that I was expecting, given the name, to be a slippy-slidey ice world but is actually a jungle-esque place filled with spiders and treehouse complexes that would make the Yolkfolk proud. The Basin contains a number of sub-quests and, yes, more shards to spot and collect. These can either be used in the Solasan temple in the main game or in a mini-version within the Basin itself, which is quite handy but still doesn’t make jumping around after the sodding things any more fun than it was before. The main questline concerns itself with the Avvar, who I seem to remember vaguely as being some barbarian-esque tribal group. A faction of these chaps/chapettes calling themselves the ‘Jaws of Hakkon’ (presumably because it sounds a bit cool) are causing some trouble-and-strife. Alongside this, an academic from the University of Orlais believes he has found the final resting place of the last leader of the Inquistion, Ameridan. As you might expect, before too long the plot-lines converge and you’re kicking some barbarian butt.

This is all quite enjoyable, though I couldn’t never quite escape the impression that it was something originally planned for the main game but then excised for some reason. It’s a shame as well that the motivations of the Jaws of Hakkon aren’t explained fully; there are some lore documents lying around the final dungeon that go some way towards it, but mostly I felt as if I were fighting a faceless enemy. Still, the penultimate boss fight is a good one, requiring you to think much more about location and placement than normal. For my relatively high-level party (I think I was about level 23 when I started it) playing on standard difficulty, it wasn’t too challenging. There were a couple of random encounters with giants and the local wildlife that caused me some strife, but mostly it was straightforward.

For the few pounds I paid for it, I was happy enough with Jaws of Hakkon. It isn’t essential by any means (though you do get a rather nifty unique ability by playing it, which definitely helps in the later DLC) but worthwhile picking up. Perhaps it was also more enjoyable for me because I’d stopped playing the full game around a year earlier, so wasn’t burned out when I cam e to it.

For those of you who’re interested in seeing me finish off the game’s final boss, there’s an utterly unedited video here:

DLC number two is Descent, and is utterly different in form and scope to Jaws of Hakkon. Rather than being presented with a new overland area, you’re sent off to the Deep Roads to investigate some earthquakes because, well, you’re the Inquisition and that’s how you roll. Those of you reasonably well-versed in Dragon Age-lore will know that the Deep Roads are a former underground empire (but not the underground empire) which is now swarming with hordes of Darkspawn and other unsavoury types.

The marketing for Descent didn’t appeal to me: it sounded a bit too much like a dungeon crawler. In reality, whilst this is true to an extent, it offers so much more. This really did feel like a full extension to the main game, providing a brief new base of operations and new expeditions to carry out. The lack of civilization and the relatively emptiness of the maps (once you’ve cleared out the Darkspawn, at least) does make you feel that you’re treading where no-one has been for a very long time. There’s also a fairly massive addition to the lore of Thedas which you hope will be touched upon in future DA games.

An Emissary, not exactly the most lovely-looking of creatures. It must go through nail-files like nobody's business.
An Emissary, not exactly the most lovely-looking of creatures. It must go through nail-files like nobody’s business.

Descent isn’t perfect. Some people will complain about the linearity, though that didn’t bother me. The ending felt a little undercooked, and – similarly to Hakkon – the enemies you encounter are pretty faceless. You start off fighting Darkspawn, and they don’t have any kind of archdemon or broodmother controlling them that you come across. Along the way you do encounter what I think is a new breed of Darkspawn, the Emissary. These seem to have been modelled on the Architect from Dragon Age Origins: Awakening, but they don’t actually provide any dialogue. Just after the mid-way point of the DLC you find yourself under attack by an mysterious group called the Sha-Brytol. As enemies go they’re quite interesting, what with their rat-a-tat-tat bolt attack and earth-shaking. Unfortunately they don’t have a leader, and you never find out an awful lot about them other than some relatively cryptic allusions in cut-scenes. It’s a shame, really, as there was some potential there for interesting antagonists. Perhaps, though, I’m being a bit hard on Descent in this respect: the problem with the anonymous enemies is one that afflicts the whole series. Even the main Inquisition game had issues in this regard, with Corypheus never feeling to me fully fleshed out.

Some special mention must be given to the fight that occurs halfway through Descent which is the toughest I recall encountering in the whole of the game thus far. With only about two supply caches nearby, you face off against a horde of Darkspawn that will keep regenerating until you defeat a certain set number of enemies. I found it a little annoying that the game didn’t make it clear that you had to go to certain areas of the map to find these enemies. As a result, it took me the best part of 75 minutes to get through the whole thing, and a fight against an Emissary Alpha who kept putting up a heavy-duty magic barrier made me have to drop the difficulty down for the first time in the whole campaign. I just couldn’t face dying and having to do the whole thing again. Maybe if I were more savvy about picking out the right places to attack the right enemies it would’ve been quicker, but first time round it was a massive slog. Fun at first, but after three quarters of an hour it just felt like a war of attrition. Still, it’s an interesting change of pace in the game.

Again, for those few of you who are interested, here’s me finally managing to defeat the Emissary Alpha:

Finally, Trespasser. I know I’ve said it already but, please, if you don’t want any spoilers for the main game as well as the DLC please immediately avert your eyes or smear them with jam so you can’t read on.

Some Elven ruins in Trespasser.
Some Elven ruins in Trespasser. They like their trees and green magic stuff.

Unlike the other two expansions, Trespasser only becomes available after the main storyline has been completed. Starting the DLC fast-forwards the timeline by about two years and removes you from Skyhold and any content you haven’t yet completed. As per the strongly-worded warning the game gives you, once you start Trespasser there is no going back. At the start you are taken to the Winter Palace in Orlais, which looks very palace-y but not, it must be said, all that wintery. The palace is playing host to the Exalted Council hosted by Divine Victoria (who I believe is either Cassandra or Leliana, depending on your choices in the main game) who are convening to discuss the future of the Inquisition. Now that the threat of Corypheus and the breaches have subsided, people across southern Thedas are beginning to question why the Inquisition still exists and why they have so many swords and other metal pointy things. I found this element of the story to be quite interesting, because it’s not often in a game that you get to see what happens after the happy ending. It always struck me as a tad odd how the great nation-states of Thedas just seemed to very quickly accept the resurrection and growth of the Inquisition during the main storyline, so it was good to see that, once the dust had settled, people were expressing their displeasure.

It’s not long however before the Council is thrown into disarray by the arrival of a distinctly-dead Qunari. A quick bit of trellis-climbing by the Inquisitor later reveals that the Qunari had arrived in the Winter Palace by means of an eluvian, those Elven magic-transporting-mirror-things seen towards the end of the main game. Without much concern or forward-planning, the Inquisitor dashes through the eluvian and ends up in some mysterious Elven ruins.

Throughout the main beats of the story, it also becomes clear that the Anchor (better known as the green swirly mark thing on the Inquisitor’s hand) is starting to become more troublesome. Again, this is quite neat as the main game never really dealt fully with the question of the long-term effects to the Inquisitor of having a big magical boil in their hand. This bleeds into the gameplay as well, since the increasing instability of the mark coupled with its exposure to ancient Elven magic causes you to gain access to some rather nifty additional abilities and increased focus gain. Part of me suspects that this is to help lower-level players get through some of the battles in the DLC’s campaign. By the time I got to play it at the maximum level 27 it was challenging in places but nothing too harsh, especially in comparison to some of the big battles in Descent. I’m not sure how it scales, but I can imagine if you were a few levels lower it could be quite hard-going.

Of course, the main allure of Trespasser is that it promises to finally bring some closure to the ‘oh-my-word’ rug-pulling teaser at the end of the main game, where it was revealed that Solas was actually Elven trickster god Fen’Harel. The Inquisition remains oblivious to this, and it isn’t until almost the end that it is revealed to them. In honesty, it did strike me as somewhat unbelievable that despite being continually called ‘Agents of Fen’Harel’ but the Qunari, nobody in the Inquisition had made the connection to Solas, particularly given that most of the Elven ruins that are explored contain murals paintings in exactly the same idiom as he decorated Skyhold. It’s a shame that you don’t actually stumble upon Solas himself until the very end, but it does at least make for a rather interesting narrative dichotomy where you as the player know you’re chasing after him for the entire campaign whilst the player characters don’t.

Trespasser is a fitting end for Inquisition, and – probably in response to the furore that exploded around the release of Mass Effect 3 – provides conclusions of sorts for all the games characters. It very much marks the ending of the Inquisitor’s story, at least in terms of adventuring. As a result this truly feels like a ‘proper’ expansion to the game. Whilst it may not be as big as ‘real’ expansion packs (such as Dragon Age Origins Awakening) used to be, it offers sufficient additional story, location and characters to be a thoroughly worthwhile purchase. It also provides hints as to where the series might go next, and a number of the decisions you make in the DLC will presumably have some impact on future plays.

In summary, I’ve been pretty pleased with the DLC for Inquisition all in all. If I had to pick a personal favourite I’d go for Descent, which is odd as that’s the one I thought I’d like the least. Having said that, if you’re only going to buy one of them you probably need to go for Trespasser, since that’s the one that adds the most to the overall narrative and provides the coda to the whole game. A great effort by Bioware all together, though. Hurry up Dragon Age 4…

On… Mario Maker

My recent acquistion of Mario Maker has made me realise two things: firstly, my five-year-old daughter is a sadist; secondly, Nintendo’s genius remains undiminished. A bulwark of the video games industry, Nintendo sometimes seem a little blinkered to what is happening around them. You only need to spend five minutes trying to set up your existing Nintendo Network ID on a different 3DS to realise that. What Mario Maker shows, though, is that the company still knows how to create something that is as accessible and as brilliant as anything Sony or Microsoft, or even Apple for that matter, could come up with.

My experience of level and game creators has not been a great one, I admit, probably due to my incompetence and lack of skill more than anything else. From the 8-bit days with the Shoot-‘Em Up Construction Kit and Graphic Adventure Creator through to the likes of Little Big Planet, I have been consistently unable to come up with anything halfway decent without getting bored or frustrated. Part of the problem is my own lack of foresight or ambition, but also there is a common theme with all the tools I’ve seen that they have a steep learning curve followed by a plateau when you realise the limitations of what’s possible.

Mario looking like he's cosplaying as Fix-It Felix Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph.
Mario looking like he’s cosplaying as Fix-It Felix Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph.

Mario Maker does a few things differently. For starters, it has a wonderfully simple interface that makes the best use of the Wii U’s Gamepad I’ve seen so far (though admittedly that isn’t saying much). My daughter was able to pick up the pad and start creating her own devilishly hard levels within minutes (‘Daddy, try this level with three giant flying Bowsers and a giant chasm before the flag’). From the simple drag-and-drop placement of item onto the square-paper landscape to the way you make enemies bigger by feeding them a super mushroom, it all makes sense. Though I believe it was a bit of a controversial decision, Nintendo’s choice to only provide a handful of items at first and then have others ‘delivered’ to you as the game progresses I found inspired. It gives you enough time to experiment with the basics before you start piling on the ‘extra’ things. The only downside of it is that it can be a little annoying that you can play levels made by others that are utilising tools you haven’t got access to yet.

Of course, Mario Maker is Mario Maker: the tool is designing specifically for creating 2D Mario levels and that’s it. There are some ingenious uses of it out there that have shoehorned RPG style elements and those of others titles into it, though these only really work as one-off showcases: you can’t really stretch it beyond it’s very strict remit. But whilst you might think that’s limiting, it actually makes it a better tool because it’s so focused. If you suffer a nut fixation or have been cross-bred with a squirrel, it’s far better to have a nutcracker than be given a sledgehammer.

One of my daughter's typically evil level designs, complete with bottomless pit (apologies for the rubbish lazy screengrab).
One of my daughter’s typically evil level designs, complete with bottomless pit (apologies for the rubbish lazy screengrab).

There’s nothing really bad I can say about Mario Maker. Yes, okay, it’s a shame that you can’t string a set of levels together into a world, which does make the collection of coins and extra lives seem a little superfluous, but that’s the only really feature I feel is missing. Everything else is just pretty much perfect, from the tactile interface to the way you can swap between designing and playing in an instant, Nintendo have not only managed to nail this but also to put some put some lovely shelving up around it and line it with a collection of worthy titles that wouldn’t look out of place in an Ideal Home showcase.

What the title also makes you appreciate – if you didn’t already – was how much sheer effort and skill goes into creating real Mario games, even those that don’t seem particularly innovative (I’m looking at you, New Super Mario Bros. Wii). The placement of objects, enemies and platforms which at first may seem haphazard in fact is a masterclass in level design; you realise that everything is in its place for a reason and because somebody has calculated through play-testing that it is exactly where it should go. Of course, odds are you won’t have the same level of skill or patience – heaven knows I haven’t – but it does give you a whole new level of appreciation for the Nintendo genius.

Mario Maker, then: brilliant.

On… Why I Got Fed Up With Destiny

There are three questions that I pretend people always ask me:

  1. Is that all your own hair?
  2. What do you have against shoes?
  3. Why did you stop playing Destiny?

And my answers would be: 1) mostly, though some of my chest hair has been donated via a Kickstarter; 2) I think the world would be a simpler place had we all got hobbit-style feet; and 3) well, it’s complicated.

A big silver ball thing. Yesterday.
A big silver ball thing. Yesterday.

As an RPG-fan who has devoted hour upon hour of my presumably-finite life-span to increasing numbers, you would think that Destiny would be a pretty good fit for me. And so did I. I pre-ordered it, played it at launch, got so far into it and then, well, just stopped. Normally I like to at least get to the end of a campaign before sticking the disc back in the case and putting into the dusty archives. I’ve made it through most of the Final Fantasies (except 12 and 13, but I’m getting to them (probably)), completed Baldur’s Gate II about eight times, and even spent at least one donkey’s year doing the same thing again and again in Mad Max (the game). But yet, Destiny just turned me off.

Maybe it was the prospect of that Paul McCartney song that I still haven’t heard, but more likely I think it was the tediously slow nature of the post-level-20 endgame. I’ve got nothing against grinding; I must have walked the equivalent of 100,000 miles around in circles in JRPGs in the hope of triggering a random battle. There always seemed a point to it, though, and an achievable target that wasn’t reliant on luck. You know in Final Fantasy IV, for instance, that if you wander around a field for long enough and fight enough pixellated monsters that you’re going to level up. Eventually you’ll get enough experience points that your stats will increase by some minuscule amount and you’ll become stronger. Destiny never seemed to offer that once you’d hit level 20; the whole ‘light points’ business never made much sense to me and it seemed an overly abstract way of providing progression. Being reliant on receiving engrams which seem to be very sporadic in how they’re dished out seemed to me that it wasn’t an adequate way of rewarding the investment I was putting into the game.

I think as I’ve got older, I’ve become more and more intolerant of things like this, where games don’t respect my time. The Ubisoft habit of filling open worlds with hordes of collectables is bad enough, but at least generally they’re optional. I don’t need to collect all the feathers in Assassin’s Creed II to get better at the game, though I might get some better armour or weaponry, or a little cutscene if I do so. Destiny, by virtue of the fact that it’s an MMO shooter where the main rewards from it are by playing against other people, was essentially forcing me into sinking a lot of time for potentially no reward.

And then there’s the story, or, rather, there isn’t. Bungie obviously made an effort to set up the background lore, what with all that business of humanity’s golden age and the giant pinball in the sky. Unfortunately the game itself contains so little in the way of narrative drive that it may as well dispense altogether with it and just tell you to go somewhere and shoot something. Which wouldn’t actually be that bad since the shooting mechanics are great and, heck, at least it’d be honest.

A lot of comments were made about Peter Dinkledge’s somewhat muted performance as Ghost – from whom most of the plot points are delivered. He’s since been patched out and replaced Ministry of Truth style by Nolan North, but I’ve not played it since so can’t comment on much of an improvement this is. In fairness to Dinkledge, it must be hard to deliver with any conviction lines that wouldn’t seem out of place in a bad episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

“Well, Peter, you’ll be playing some kind of ill-defined floaty robot thing that can somehow resurrect people but yet still takes twenty minutes to hack some computer terminal whilst your Guardian single-handedly faces off waves of identikit bad guys. Oh, and there are wizards on the Moon.”

*Slump*

So… That’s why I stopped playing Destiny. Although I’ll probably still buy the sequel because, well, I have issues.

On… the Infinity Engine and Abstraction

As with a lot of gamers my age, I suffer from the first-world problem of having a massive backlog of things to play through. Every month the list of games I own that I’ve either never played or barely scratched the surface of gets bigger and bigger. As problems go, it’s not a bad one to have and, of course, is all really of my own making.

Anyway, it’s because of this that I’ve only just got around to seriously sitting down and playing Pillars of Eternity. This is a Kickstarter-funded RPG by Obsidian and is a call-back to the old Infinity Engine games of the late ’90s/very early 2000s.

And, well, it’s pretty damn great.

Some pillars.
Some pillars.

Back in my not-so-fevered youth I played all of the mainstream IE games, from the original Baldur’s Gate through to Icewind Dale II, and PoE certainly looks the part. Crucially, despite looking like a game built on the same technology as Baldur’s Gate, it’s been refined with just enough ‘modern’ functionality that it feels like a substantial improvement. Yes, okay, at the end of the day you’re still moving character models around pre-rendered backgrounds in an isometric view, but Obsidian have done a very good job and adding things that were missing before. For instance, you can now zoom in and watch virtual dice roll up close, and there are visual highlights for area-of-effect spells.

In some ways I guess it seems a bit odd that you would really want to create a new game in an engine first created before Tony Blair was prime minister. I can’t really see many people wanting to make games using Doom technology. What it shows is the amount of esteem that those original games are still held in. Part of the reason for this is that they were good games to start off with: well-written, deep and detailed. Another factor, though, is that they were abstract enough that they are still playable today and, in many ways, that abstraction improves the relationship players have with the games. To be honest, Baldur’s Gate looked dated back in 1998. By that point games had moved into the 3D era and, games such as Daggerfall had two years since shown how immersive a first-person RPG could be. Yet there was something about the Infinity Engine and the way it showed you the world that made you feel more involved. The limited viewpoint, combined with the detail that the pre-rendered environments could offer (particularly in comparison to 3D games of the time) worked wonderfully. In the absence of much provided by the game, your brain had to ‘fill in the gaps’, which generally speaking it’s a lot better at doing than people give it credit for. It seems to me the same effect that made 8-bit games so immersive despite the fact that no matter how good the art style, the graphics were inherently poor.

If anything, the creators of PoE have gone further in this abstraction than was ever done with the older games, perhaps with the notable exception of Planescape Torment. Dialogue is interspersed with character descriptions, and numerous in-game events are dealt with via a textual options accompanied by a static line drawing. It sounds lazy, but in actuality – providing you have a decent enough imagination – works fantastically well. Certainly, given the limited budget it’s a lot better than you would have got had they aimed for a more graphic-intensive depiction.

I’m not too far into the game yet, having barely made it through the first few locations, so I don’t want to pass judgement too early. Thus far I am very much enjoying it, although it doesn’t quite seem on a par with how good I remember Baldur’s Gate II being. That may just be rose-tinted nostalgia clouding my opinions, though. I’ll try and continue to add my thoughts here as I progress (assuming I don’t get distracted by anything else).